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“Homes fit for Heroes.” A phrase used to try to inspire those on the Home Front to make extra efforts to assist those returning from the battlefields of WW2. Today the word “hero” is used with increasing frequency, to the extent that many feel it has been somewhat debased. Is anyone who carries out a truly “heroic” act now a super-hero?

YouGov has recently published findings of a poll into people’s views on the “heroic” nature of military service. These show a great variation in the way in which the armed forces of three Western countries are regarded by the public in their respective nations. But the use of the word “Hero” in itself raises many questions unanswered by that poll.

The whole question of what constitutes “heroic” action was probably opened up in recent times by the awarding of medals in the first Gulf War in a manner that even some of the recipients regarded as being rather liberal. One bemused recipient of an MC said that he had merely stepped out of his vehicle, walked a few hundred yards across the desert and accepted the surrender of an Iraqi commander and his rather bedraggled looking men.

That is not to say that there are not those who carried out acts as brave or commendable as any in the history of warfare, or indeed to deny that many who have done so have gone unrecognised. However, as with most aspects of modern life, the question of awards has been influenced by factors other than the precise merits of the case, such as a desire that UK forces are not seen as being less worthy than their US counterparts (who seem to put up yards of medal ribbon after any sort of operation).

Other influences at work include the charitable sector which has played on the assumption that anyone who enters the Forces is, by definition, a hero. “Help for Heroes” is an immensely successful fund-raiser, but it, together with other organisations that use the word “hero” in their title, might have contributed to a reduction in the value of the description. Is someone who drives their truck into a ditch after an exhausting night march a “hero”?  Is someone who is hit by a stray shell a few miles behind the lines a “hero”? Or is someone who dies while advancing to contact a “hero”?

Of course, it all depends upon one’s viewpoint. For some, to even contemplate joining the Forces merits some sort of tribute; the YouGov data suggests that many in the UK regard anyone in uniform as a “hero”. However, more detailed questions about the differences between support and front-line roles start to raise questions about whether the average person actually fully understands the difference. For example, REME personnel could be working at any stage in the echelon from repairing a tank under fire, to working in a third-line workshop. Are they all heroes?

The national differences are interesting – though some will say they are fairly obvious. Americans take pride in wearing their national heart on their sleeves and view anyone today going into the Forces as worthy of great praise. (The author has seen a serving four-star general in tears when delivering a speech to cadets whom he addressed as “This great nation’s warrior sons and daughters”.)  This is, of course, a turnaround from the late- and post-Viet Nam days when conscripted soldiers were sometime spat-upon in the streets. Even in the mid-1980s, those who chose to join the US Army recognised that they were often characterised as not being up to the rigours of a civilian career.  The “War on Terror” and Gulf War One has changed all of that.

Germany is a far more complex country from the perspective of militarism in general. Post-WW2 guilt meant that, for many decades, young Germans were encouraged to suppress nationalistic feelings in favour of a European identity.  That resulted in many Germans brought up in the ‘60s and ‘70s having a lower opinion of those serving in the Forces (who were often regarded as being civil-servants in uniform), whilst those whose experience is of German Forces deploying with recent NATO and UN operations are far more likely to have a high regard for the military.

The YouGov poll shows an interesting split along the lines of age. In the US, older people are likely to look favourably on the military – the direct opposite of the UK and Germany where more of the young regard anyone serving as “a hero”.  There is of course much scope for discussion as to why this is so, but some argue that, as people in the West become more “sophisticated” and remote from the harsher realities of life elsewhere in the world, they tend to discount the need to get involved in something as distasteful as actually fighting to preserve that  way of life. With this in mind, it is possible that a young person the States has less exposure to what is going on in the “Big World” than their counterparts in Europe.

That said, few would disagree that the US has borne the brunt of recent operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, though whether it continues to do so is anyone’s guess. The Trump administration’s stated aim is to pull back from involvement in world affairs, but at the same time to pump a lot of extra funds into the military – which leads to another, longer-term question: are we, the public, happy to support our Armed Forces as long as we believe that it does not affect our everyday lives by taking money from schools or hospitals etc. ?

It might be assumed that these last two considerations would affect women more than men and that the lack of local services could be attributed to money wasted on defence spending. Although some might argue that it is no longer relevant to assume that women are more likely to be looking after children and other “domestic” matters, statistically they are still the most important “home-makers” (a role still hugely under-appreciated and undervalued in this country). It is interesting, therefore, that in the US and UK, women are a lot more likely to regard anyone in uniform as a “hero” than do men.

The YouGov poll dealt with the term “Hero”. It did not discuss alternatives which have served many nations well in previous decades.  Many who die in wars are not killed by direct enemy action but were serving their nation in a manner that contributed to the overall success of an operation or war. “Died in the service of their country” was a thoroughly honourable way to describe someone’s death – or indeed wounding. The exhausted truck driver who crashed into a ditch, or the signaller hit by a stray shell well behind the lines would have fallen straight into this category. So would someone who might have had a few too many, or indeed the front-line soldier who decided to take on an enemy pill-box out of sheer frustration.

The fact is that we probably do not really know what separates true heroes from the rest of us more mediocre types. The pressures that cause someone to avoid, or look for, the enemy might build up over many weeks or months.  Just dealing with those on a daily basis, getting up and going to stand-to positions each morning for weeks on end, setting off on a daily patrol route that is most likely well known to the enemy – those are the things that so often go unnoticed and unremarked by the vast majority of people.

They are the sorts of activities can place a huge burden on nerves and draw upon reserves of will-power. Dealing with that pressure and still being able to conduct oneself in a professional and competent manner is worthy of the greatest respect. That said, it is more than likely that few in the services would regard themselves as heroes for doing so. It’s just part of the rich tapestry of life in the Forces.


For the full YouGov report Click here

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